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CA Auto Defect Litigation: Products Liability & Motor Vehicles

an airbag deployed after a car accident

Americans rely on their cars, trucks, and SUVs for commuting and enjoyment, but as massive machines capable of high speeds, motor vehicles pose ever-present risks for serious accidents and injuries.

When vehicles or the components they contain are defective, these risks are substantially magnified.

In California, victims have a right to bring personal injury lawsuits over damages caused by defective vehicles or vehicle components. Prevailing in these cases, however, can be a difficult task that requires Plaintiffs to not only prove essential elements, but also take on sophisticated opponents that leverage extensive resources to defend themselves and their bottom lines.

For victims harmed in auto accidents, working with attorneys who can evaluate the merits of a products liability case, and not merely a negligence claim, can be invaluable when pursuing full compensation.

Examples of Auto Defect Claims

Automakers and auto part manufacturers, like any other company that makes and sells products in the U.S., are subject to being sued for injuries or deaths caused by their products.

While products liability is not new, auto defect litigation has become more common. Plaintiff-friendly liability theories, procedural changes that allow evidence to be more easily obtained during discovery, and relaxed jurisdictional limitations which allow foreign or out-of-state automakers to be sued in local courts have also made these claims increasingly favorable to Plaintiffs.

Today, auto defect lawsuits may involve a range of allegations and defects. Examples include:

  • Defective tires (blowouts, tread separation, etc.)
  • Seat belt and airbag defects
  • Car and SUV roof collapse / roof crush
  • Defective seat design / failed seats
  • Ignition defects / unintended acceleration
  • Vehicle instability and SUV or ATV rollovers
  • Inadequate crashworthiness
  • Defective steering components
  • Electrical failures
  • Dangerous modifications (as made by dealerships or third parties)

Elements of an Auto Products Liability Claim

Types of Defects

Auto products cases may allege:

  1. Design defects, which claim a vehicle or vehicle component was defectively designed;
  2. Manufacturing defects, which claim vehicles or parts were made unsafe during the manufacturing process; or
  3. Marketing defects, which include failures to warn consumers about potential hazards or failures to provide adequate instructions.

Claims that allege design defects may be brought under:

  • The risk-benefit test, which claims that an automaker chose not to incorporate a safer, cost-efficient alternative design that was available at the time of a vehicle’s production; or
  • The consumer-expectation test, which clams that a product did not function as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected it to perform when used – or misused - in an intended or reasonably foreseeable way.

Theories of Liability

Auto products cases in California may be based on theories of strict liability, negligence, or breach of warranty (a product that fails to meet its intended purpose).

Claims alleging negligence can involve many different scenarios, including the negligence of:

  • Automakers who fail to recall or retrofit a defective product they knew or should have known was dangerous or likely to be dangerous when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner (CACI No. 1223).
  • Auto manufacturers, distributors, or retailers who fail to use reasonable care by not warning or instructing about a product’s dangerous condition or factors which made the product likely to be dangerous (CACI No. 1222).
  • A rental car company that fails to exercise reasonable care to inspect vehicles for defects, make them safe for their intended use, and adequately warn consumers of known dangers (CACI No. 1224).
  • Any company that negligently designed, manufactured, supplied, repaired, rented, inspected, or installed a vehicle or auto part which later caused harm, and whose negligence was a substantial factor in causing harm (CACI No. 1220).

In claims based on strict liability, Plaintiffs must generally prove that:

  1. The Defendant designed, manufactured, distributed, or sold the vehicle or auto part;
  2. The vehicle / auto part was use as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable way;
  3. The vehicle / auto part was defective (due to a design, manufacturing, or marketing defect); and
  4. The defect was a substantial cause of the Plaintiffs’ injury.

Strict liability means that manufacturers can be held liable when unreasonably dangerous products cause harm. However, strict liability is not limited to manufacturers alone – it can impose liability on all parties involved in the chain of design, manufacture, distribution, or sale of the product.

As with many products claims, auto defect cases based on strict liability must establish a sufficient causal connection between the Defendant(s), the product, and the Plaintiffs’ injury. To strengthen a case and obtain more leverage against a Defendant, Plaintiffs’ attorneys may also plead claims of negligence in addition to a strict products liability claim.

Who Can Be Held Liable for Vehicle Defects?

Because there are several different entities involved in the chain of production and distribution of motor vehicles, there are a number of parties that may potentially bear legal responsibility for damages caused by defective vehicles or vehicle components.

These parties may include:

  • Automakers / Component Part Manufacturers: Vehicle manufacturers have a legal duty to ensure products do not pose unreasonable dangers to consumers who use them as intended and within normal operating conditions. When defective vehicles result in preventable injuries, the manufacturer(s) may be held liable. In some cases, Plaintiffs may have a claim against the vehicle manufacturer and the manufacturer of a defective part, unless the defective part was purchased separately. If a set of replacement tires was defective, for example, the vehicle manufacturer is not part of the chain of distribution, and may not bear liability.
  • Distributors: Parties involved in the sale, shipping, or distribution of a defective product can be held liable for damages. A third party’s percentage of fault may vary depending on the circumstances, and may increase if their negligence when storing or transporting vehicles was a substantial factor in causing a Plaintiffs’ harm (CACI 1207B).
  • Auto Dealerships: In addition to being held liable for acts of negligence, auto dealerships may be strictly liable for damages suffered by consumers to whom they sold defective vehicles or auto parts. California courts have held that a dealership’s limited role in getting products from a franchisor to a consumer is sufficient to expose the dealer to strict liability for auto defects, even if a dealership does not profit on a transaction (Ibarra v. Todey Motor Co.).
  • Used Dealerships: Even if vehicles are purchased pre-owned, a used car dealer may be liable for damages under certain circumstances. However, products cases involving used cars can be challenging given the difficulty of determining the origin of a defect in a used vehicle.
  • Parts Retailers and Other Third Parties: Companies that sell defective products can be liable for damages suffered by consumers, as can any repair shop or third party that, for reasons of performance or appearance, make vehicle alterations which make vehicles more dangerous.

Because automakers have deep pockets and in-house counsel, it’s important to evaluate the merits of a potential products claim, and the risks and cost-effectiveness of suing manufacturers. Some factors may increase the need to sue a manufacturer, such as single-vehicle accidents, UM/UIM drivers, catastrophic injuries or wrongful death, and clear or highly concerning defects that leave few other options.

Crashworthiness and Auto Defect Litigation

Motor vehicles more often than not perform adequately when used as intended under optimal conditions. Some vehicles, however, may fail to keep occupants safe in accidents.

At Biren Law Group, we carefully evaluate vehicles involved in car accidents to determine whether they were crashworthy, and whether defects in the design of the vehicle may have contributed to injuries that would not otherwise have occurred.

Examples of safety issues involving a vehicle’s crashworthiness may include:

  • Safety and restraint systems (i.e. airbags and seat belts) which fail to perform as intended, or which function in a manner that increases the likelihood of injury;
  • Inadequate fire prevention or fuel system protections to avoid or contain explosions, fires, and related injuries.
  • Inadequate crush control measures which fail to adequately prevent injuries caused by roof collapse, among other dangers.

Supporting these claims requires extensive investigation, meticulous review of evidence from Defendants, and collaboration with industry experts.

Defenses to Auto Defect Claims

Defendants in products cases work aggressively to defend themselves. Common defense arguments include:

1. The Plaintiff / Another Driver Was Negligent

Automakers will often argue that the negligence of a Plaintiff or another motorist caused the accident, even if such negligence is minor or non-existent.

In these cases, evidence and carefully structured arguments may refute defenses. Attorneys may also argue that while a motorist may have caused or contributed to a crash, they did not cause the Plaintiff’s injuries or, at the very least, did not cause the full extent of the injuries.

This argument typically focuses on a “first accident” – the collision between two vehicles or between a vehicle and object – and a “second accident” – the defective condition alleged to have been responsible for the severe injuries which would not have occurred had there been no defect.

Apportioning fault and liability in vehicle defect cases can be challenging and somewhat of a legal science, but it can take much of the wind out of a comparative fault defense. Attorneys should be meticulous in anticipating how attributable fault to a Plaintiff, another driver, or other third parties may impact an ultimate award for damages, and settlement potential. In California, fault attributable to third-party drivers only affects non-economic damages; an automaker found at fault to any degree is liable for the entirety of a Plaintiffs’ economic damages, with the exception of the Plaintiff’s own negligence, if any.

2. The “State of The Art” Defense

Defendants in auto defect cases may take the position that products are state of the art, and therefore not defective, simply because they adhere to the same standards used by other manufacturers or similar products, and / or the minimum standards required by law at the time it was sold – even if those standards are well below what is actually technologically feasible, or in use by other high-end manufacturers.

While Defendants making this affirmative defense may insist vehicles at question are low- to mid-range products for which advanced safety innovations are too expensive, that is not always the case. Manufacturers cannot compromise safety for the sake of cost or competition, nor do they need to spend lavishly on features which do no nothing to keep consumers safe.

The state-of-the-art defense intersects with the concept of a “safer alternative design” inherent to the risk-benefit test. Plaintiffs’ attorneys can therefore work with relevant experts and industry insiders to prove claims that allege a safer alternative design was available and feasible at the time of production, and that incorporation of the best reasonably feasible technology could have made the product safer.

In some cases, refuting a state-of-the-art defense may require Plaintiffs’ counsel to explain to jurors that federal motor vehicle safety standards do not constitute state of the art, but are rather the lowest possible standards implemented though a highly political process – one that is also very susceptible to influence from industry lobbyists. Getting this point across, sometimes with the assistance of an expert, can result in manufacturers being held liable even when they comply with standards.

It is worth nothing that the state-of-the-art defense may gain more interest as self-driving vehicles become more common on our roads. Because autonomous vehicle technology means manufacturers will take on more risk in terms of liability for crashes, it’s likely in their best interests to avoid using such technology, or to require drivers to monitor its operation, even when self-driving technology greatly improves safety, and matures to the point of allowing truly autonomous operation.

3. The Component Parts Defense

Many auto defect claims involve alleged defects in a component of the vehicle that failed, malfunctioned, or was otherwise the underlying cause of injury.

Although the California Supreme Court has ruled that there are “no meaningful distinctions” between component manufacturers and manufacturers of complete products, many auto part manufacturers nonetheless attempt to evade strict products liability by arguing that they supplied a non-defective component, did not play a role in designing or manufacturing a finished vehicle, and that the manufacturer of the finished product (i.e. a vehicle manufacturer) is better positioned to ensure the safe and suitable use of components for their application. This is known as the component parts defense.

Component part manufacturers may not be required to be experts on products which incorporate their components, but they are still subject to products liability. Additionally, California courts have held that a component parts defense protects suppliers of multi-use products which undergo a process change to make a finished product (unless the supplier has some role in the process), but not suppliers of products that have specific purposes and uses (O’Neil v. Crane Co.).

Defeating the component part defense will depend on the component in question, whether it is at issue in a defective product claim, and whether evidence exists to defeat any of the elements required for the defense to apply – such as proving:

  • The component does not pass the consumer-expectation test;
  • The component contained a manufacturing defect that caused injury;
  • The component contained a design defect under the risk-benefit test; or
  • The part manufacturer had a role in designing or manufacturing the finished product.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys who anticipate this defense can benefit from working to prove that the component itself – be it an airbag, seatbelt, tires, or some other part – is defective, that a manufacturer knew or should have known their component would cause harm when used or incorporated as intended, and / or that the manufacturer was in a position to warn about the risk of harm.

Auto Defect Lawyers Serving Southern California

Products liability claims involving defective motor vehicles and vehicle components can make for challenging litigation – both in subject matter, and in opposition.

At Biren Law Group, our boutique practice is able to devote the necessary time and resources required of these cases, and has the network of professional connections to fully investigate these highly technical claims. If you have questions about an auto defect case anywhere in Los Angeles or the surrounding areas of Southern California, our attorneys are available to discuss your matter during a free and confidential consultation.